Charles Taylor reviews 'Nightwatch,' directed by Ole Bornedal and starring Ewan McGregor, Patricia Arquette and Nick Nolte.

By Charles Taylor
Published April 17, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Not having seen "Nattevagten," the Danish movie remade by its director, Ole Bornedal, as the new "Nightwatch," I can't say how close the remake is to the original. But since I have seen "Seven," which has obviously influenced Bornedal's movie as well as other recent American thrillers from "Mimic" to "Kiss the Girls," I offer, as a service to Salon readers, this guide to recognizing the post-"Seven" thriller.

Distressed Titles: The credit sequences of the post-"Seven" thriller are designed to look like a serial killer's scrapbook: titles (often blurred or repeated) in small, grimy type appearing among newspaper clippings, crime-scene photos (often with bits cut out of them) and various bits of repulsive detritus (is that dust? is it hair?). The effect is like looking into the space behind a radiator where you'd gladly let a $20 bill molder before sticking your hand down there to get it.

Achieved Low Tech: Appliances, televisions, stereos, cars -- all look dusty and battered. When the hero of "Nightwatch" (Ewan McGregor), a law student who has taken a position as night watchman at a morgue, turns up for his first shift, his identification card is tapped out on a rusty manual typewriter. Apparently, no one has any money here for computers and furthermore, they haven't been able to pay their electric bill. Which leads us to the third identifying factor of the post-"Seven" thriller ...

Underlighting: Dingy, dingy, dingy. The post-"Seven" thriller generally takes place in nameless, decaying cities consisting of large, run-down apartments or offices lit by 30-watt bulbs, the better to make corners look shadowy and foreboding. This may be a shrewd decorating choice, since neither the cavernous hospital where McGregor works nor the apartment he shares with girlfriend Patricia Arquette (in a role so undefined and thankless it can be adequately described as simply "girlfriend") look like they've seen a fresh coat of paint since the Eisenhower administration. This is not true of McGregor's bathroom, which is slightly brighter and done in striking tones reminiscent of dried blood. Generally, though, the post-"Seven" thriller is not recommended for those with poor vision, as these films may lead to severe eyestrain caused by perpetually squinting at the screen to determine just what the hell you're looking at.

The City as Hell: See above.

The Killer as Damned Soul and the Disgusto Factor: Serial killers in the post-"Seven" thriller are damned, and they know it. Nick Nolte, who plays the cop on the trail of the killer in "Nightwatch," theorizes that the murderer wants the killing to stop and is leaving clues that will lead to his capture. (The problem is that all the clues point to Ewan, who we can tell is too sweet a laddie to pull a thread on your kilt.) None of the old-style homicidal maniac, the kind who enjoys killing, nowadays. Shame may indeed be what provokes the "Nightwatch" loony to gouge out the eyes of his victims. (OK, he wants a souvenir, too.) Similarly, the old approach of leaving the disgusting details to our imagination is not for the post-"Seven" thriller. The audience must be confronted with this postmodern evil and "Nightwatch" doesn't spare us an iota of sadism. The fact that we don't actually see knives plunging into flesh doesn't diminish the brave candor of the opening scene, in which a prostitute on a table, whose feet are tied by a rope attached to a ceiling fan (don't ask me why), rips the fan out of the ceiling as she is stabbed to death. Later, there's a shot of another prostitute, freshly killed and raped, as the killer pours a vial of McGregor's semen on the corpse.

Ordinary Human Behavior Only Slightly Less Vile Than That of the Killer: What is the killer in the post-"Seven" thriller but a reflection of the evil that men do, the darkness that hides inside us all? This function is fulfilled in "Nightwatch" by Josh Brolin as McGregor's buddy, a fellow law student fighting against the slide into staid adult life. He attempts to accomplish this by abusing his girlfriend, picking up a hooker, pressuring McGregor into joining his games and humiliating the aforementioned hooker in a fancy restaurant, an exercise tolerated by the waiter after he is adequately bribed. Want to know where serial killers come from, the post-"Seven" thriller asks? From a world populated by scum like "us."

No Fun: You're looking for wit, style, some clever jump scenes, the pleasurable tingle that a good thriller gives you? What do you think this is -- entertainment? Its, uh, uncompromised view of evil is what seemed to impress people about "Seven" (just as it impressed them about "The Silence of the Lambs" a few years earlier). What's interesting is how the view of the world in movies about serial killers now seems to differ less and less from the view held by the killers themselves. In "Nightwatch," as in "Seven," cities really are dank, anonymous sewers where all manner of human misery and depravity is tolerated and exploited. Why worry about the victims? As presented in these films, they're less people than pestilence. Perhaps, if Hollywood pursues this genre, it will inadvertently devise a new way to convert real serial killers into useful members of the community once more. Imagine work-release programs in which, say, the Hillside Stranglers or the Night Stalker are hired as technical consultants (or even directors) on serial-killer movies. Who knows? Maybe the makers of some post-"Seven" thriller yet to come will get to credit their advisors at some future Academy Awards as the camera cuts to a manacled Bianchi or Ramirez sitting in the audience, wearing a tux that's been specially designed just for him.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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